Digging in Deeper: Matthew 22:36-40

“‘Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)

I love two for one deals, don’t you? Stores don’t do it all that often, but when they do, they are almost guaranteed to sell me on whatever it is. This is especially true at a grocery store. When I’m walking down one aisle or another and see some product is on sale, two for the price of one, all of a sudden, I’m hungry for whatever it is. Even if I don’t like it, I’m starting to think that maybe it’s time to expand my nutritional horizons so I can capitalize on this great deal. One day, Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment in the Law of Moses. In response He offered the most important two for one deal ever. As we continue in our Advent journey this morning, let’s talk about what this means for our lives.

Yesterday we started talking about the fact that Christmas is all about love. At its core, Christmas is a celebration of the love of God expressed through the sending of His Son to provide for us a path to eternal life. As much as God loves us, though, we are commanded again and again in the Scriptures to love Him. As a matter of fact, for ancient Jews, the command to love God lay at the heart of the most important command in all of the Law.

I’m not yet talking about Jesus’ reformulation of it. For first century Jews (and modern, observant Jews for that matter), the greatest command in the Law of Moses has always been the Shema. Here it is in its original setting from Deuteronomy 6:4: “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” That was it. Everything in the Law was understood to come second to that.

And, when this lawyer asked Jesus about it, they both knew what the expected answer was. But that wasn’t the point. Even though this was the expected answer, teachers of the law had been debating just exactly what it meant and how it applied and so on and so forth for centuries. The lawyer’s goal was to take whatever Jesus said and nitpick it to pieces in front of the crowd in hopes of finally scoring some points against Him with the people. Jesus didn’t play ball.

Jesus started His response just like everyone expected Him to start it, by restating the Shema. But then, just when the lawyer had opened his mouth to respond, Jesus kept right on going and offered a second command as the greatest as well: Love your neighbor as yourself. This second command was also something found in the Law of Moses, but it wasn’t as famous as the Shema. This one is tucked into Leviticus 19 in the purity codes found there. In its original setting it looks like this: “Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your community, but love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.”

These were both commands the Pharisees and scribes and Sadducees and Herodians and all the other political and religious factions gathered there before Jesus in the temple square knew well. They knew all of the Law well. But these two had never been put together like this before. What I mean is that while the commands weren’t original to Jesus, the pairing of them together like this was. And pay close attention to how Jesus put them together. When He described the love your neighbor part as the second command, He wasn’t putting it second in terms of its importance. He was putting it second simply as the next part of the one command. The two of them together form one command.

This pairing represented something new that Jesus was introducing to the world. You see, before this (and far too often since) believers have understood their relationship with God in strictly vertical terms. If they are right with Him, that’s all that matters. As long as their vertical relationship with their heavenly Father is in good shape, everything else will fall into place as well. Most notably, they don’t have to worry about being right with anyone else. Actually, it hasn’t been only believers who have thought in those terms. This kind of vertical morality has always been at the heart of every human religion. They are all about putting their adherents in a right relationship with God or the gods or the higher power or whatever other form their deity may take.

Then Jesus flipped the script.

By adding this second part to the first and doing so in a way that communicated its co-equal importance, Jesus made an incredibly significant change to how we should understand what a right relationship with God looks like. Love for God and love for neighbor had always been thought of as two separate concepts. Jesus combined them into one. Love for God is love for neighbor and love for neighbor is love for God. They are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other, and if you don’t have the other, the one is going to be out of reach. In other words, if I think I’m right with God, but I’m not right with you, then it turns out I’m not really right with God after all.

Think about this applicationally in your own life for a second. How is your relationship with God doing? Before you answer that, think about this: How are your relationships with the people around you doing? Are they all good? All of them? Are you loving each and every person you meet with the same intentionality that you love yourself? Do you consider the needs of your neighbor as on par with your own? If you have holes anywhere in your relationships with the people in your life, then you have holes in your relationship with God. That is, if your horizontal relationships aren’t right, neither will your vertical one be.

Okay, but what does any of this have to do with Advent and the love of Christmas? Well, we are God’s neighbors. I don’t mean we live next door to Him. Rather, we are not Him and so, according to Jesus, we are His neighbors. Jesus expanded the definition of neighbor (you can read about it in Luke 10) to include anyone who isn’t you. In other words, everyone is your neighbor. Well, we’re not God, so therefore we are His neighbor. And when God needed only to be concerned with loving Himself, He went out of His way to love us. How? By doing just what we talked about yesterday: He sent His Son so that we might live. Now, we are called to follow suit. We’ll talk more about that tomorrow.

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